With a father from Oromia in Ethiopia and a mother from Guyana, Bonsitu Kitaba was born in Canada and raised in what she describes as “a beautifully diverse community surrounded by my family and a rich network of close family friends.” At an early age, Bonsitu was involved in her parents’ activism within their communities in Toronto as well as broader struggles for liberation in Ethiopia. Looking to emulate their activism, she moved to Detroit to attend law school at Wayne State University. Feeling Detroit’s warm embrace, she quickly decided it was here she wanted to “learn, grow, and give back.” She met her husband John in law school, and now has two beautiful sons. Joining the ACLU a mere two weeks before the 2016 presidential election immediately launched her into what she describes as “the exciting and heartbreaking world of fighting for civil rights and liberties.” In 2019, she became the deputy legal director.
In addition to her dauntless efforts to protect abortion rights in Michigan – beginning work on Prop. 3 with others months before Roe was overturned – she played a big role in our landmark Flint water case, and helped lead a coalition that won the right for Detroit renters facing eviction to have publicly funded legal representation. Last year, Michigan Lawyers Weekly recognized her many achievements by naming her one of the state’s “Influential Women of Law.” As part of our Women’s History Month celebration, we asked Bonsitu about her role in last year’s history-making effort to protect abortion in Michigan, the pressures involved in fighting for an issue that affects so many lives, the joys of showing a new generation of activists how to carry forward a family tradition of fighting oppression, and a few books worth reading that have women at their center.
Note: We recognize that many people celebrated or highlighted this month identify as women, not all of them do. We use the terms "women" to be inclusive of all in this movement and the fact that everybody is entitled to dignity, equality, and fairness regardless of gender identity.
Q: You played a major role in writing the Reproductive Freedom for All state constitutional amendment that made history last year when Michigan voters turned out to approve it. What motivated you to take on something so significant?
Although I was intimidated by the seemingly daunting task, I knew that if we engaged the right group of stakeholders and directly impacted people, we would be able to draft a truly powerful constitutional amendment. I knew I was not alone in this fight and more than anything, I knew that millions of people in Michigan were looking to us for bold action that protected their rights long-term. After we conducted our listening tour of stakeholders, I knew for certain we were on the right path because we heard resoundingly that Michigan should be a leader in the fight for reproductive freedom and that we needed to ensure that everyone, regardless of race, identity or status, was able to get the care they needed.
Q: A lot of pressure goes along with doing something that carries such monumental consequences?
Working on the Reproductive Freedom for All campaign was some of the hardest years in my career. There was a lot of pressure knowing that this could be the pivotal campaign to protect reproductive freedom in the country. All eyes were on us. So many people across the state and country put so much into this campaign, their time, sweat, money, passion --I knew that we had to pull through. It was a lot, because we were up against forces that would stop at almost nothing to stop us. But we had the best team working day in and day out to make it happen. I leaned on all of them in those moments where the pressure seemed overwhelming.
Q: What’s it like doing such important work, which can be all consuming, while also being a mom to small children?
My two little rascals bring so much joy into my life and give me so much energy in this work. One of the blessings that came from the pandemic was the ability for me to work from home. So even though there were many nights when I had to work late, I still got to take small breaks and play, eat, read to, or cuddle my little ones. It was certainly hard being so consumed with my work over those years, and there were many times I had to miss valuable time with my children and husband. I often felt like I was not succeeding in either arena. I tried to involve my family as much as I could. When our house became a hub for sign pick-up, we would all be outside playing baseball or chalk on the driveway as we greeted neighbors and handed out signs together. I’d bring my clipboard and petitions almost anywhere we went as a family. Those moments reminded me of being with my dad and mom growing up. They would take us everywhere with them, to demonstrations, endless community meetings, temple gatherings, etc. I felt like I was carrying on that tradition with my kids and hopefully showing them what activism and hard work looks like.
Q: The first time you were eligible to vote after becoming a citizen was for a measure you lead the way on in drafting. What was that experience like?
It was incredible and surreal. I could never have predicted that after 10 years of living in the U.S., I would naturalize as a citizen right before one of the most pivotal elections of my career. It made me appreciate the opportunities that this country has provided for me and my family, and reminded me exactly why I was here. I dedicated my life to improving the lives of others, and it was a moment where I completely felt in sync with that purpose.
Q: Now that the right to an abortion is etched into the state Constitution, is your work in that area done?
Our work is not over. We must ensure that the constitutional amendment and fundamental right to reproductive freedom is protected and exercised in a way that truly honors the purpose and intent of the amendment. On top of that, we must undo the convoluted web of restrictions blocking access to abortion. These laws were passed by anti-abortion legislators and are not medically necessary but only serve to make it harder for people to get the safe, affordable healthcare that they need. We also need to work towards equitable access to the full spectrum of reproductive healthcare, especially for those who already face barriers to access.
My vision is that we will live in a world where reproductive justice is achieved: where everyone can enjoy the right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities This includes tackling some of the toughest systemic issues like medical racism and the maternal death rate for Black women; these women especially face the worst medical outcomes even across income, education and other socioeconomic factors.
Q: Traditionally, the Women’s Movement has mostly been a movement of white middle-class women. As a woman of color, how do you see things now?
One of the loudest criticisms I’ve heard of the Women’s Movement is that it lacks an intersectionality lens and has almost exclusively included and focused on cisgender, white, wealthy women’s issues. I have certainly not lived through most of the Women’s Movement, but in my lifetime I’ve seen an increasing acknowledgement of the harms that movement has done, including marginalizing and excluding women of color, trans and non-binary people, in addition to sidelining certain issues faced by people with non-mainstream identities. This is why we have seen the recognition of concepts like Kimberle Crenshaw’s intersectionality and seen the growth of beautiful organizations like SisterSong and others that are specifically dedicated to creating an inclusive movement towards an expanded understanding of reproductive justice and other issues faced by people of color.
There is still a lot of work to do to ensure that the Women’s Movement is inclusive, including starting with language that reflects the diversity of those affected by these issues. But I am also grateful there are unique spaces advocating on behalf of their own communities. These are groups and movements that we can all learn from and should be leading change that will serve not only their communities, but the entire world.
Q: At times in our history, women played a major role in efforts to advance social justice. The abolitionist movement to end slavery comes to mind. What do you see going on now?
I see this in my work every day. Women, transgender women and non-binary folks are at the forefront of almost every single issue the ACLU of Michigan works on. I think this is because oftentimes activism is the only antidote to your own oppression. If we don’t do it, no one will do it for us. And even today, this group of people has faced some of the worst forms of oppression. I’ve had the privilege to work with some remarkable women leading the fight against housing discrimination, abortion and reproductive justice, access to justice, environmental justice, and juvenile justice.
Q: Any book recommendations?
One of my great joys in life is reading. I am in a book club made up of eleven women I met in law school and who are my dearest friends. Each month, we choose a book with a female heroine or written by a female author. Right now, we are reading a wonderful book called Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson. It is a story about the life journeys of a West Indian family, led by a strong matriarch, and their connection to food, particularly this uniquely Caribbean cake. Lots of twists and turns along the way. The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy, is another favorite of mine. It is a story of a Detroit family of 13 adult siblings who must decide what happens to their childhood home after their mother falls ill. Another personal favorite that helped me learn a little more about my husband’s Icelandic background is Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. It is based on a true story of a woman who was a servant in northern Iceland who was condemned to death after the murder of two men. She became the last woman executed in Iceland. A couple of fun reads include Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six , a fictional story about the drama involved in a young music artists’ career, and The Invisible Life of Addie Larue by V.E. Schwab, a fantasy novel about a woman in 1714 who makes a pact with the Dark, making her immortal.
Q: Do you have a personal motto or favorite saying?
Be like water. This phrase reminds me that water usually finds its way through obstacles and resistance. It also reminds me that when I am in a flow state, things are moving smoothly, and I know I am on the right path. When I feel disjointed or trying to push through something without making headway, it’s usually because I’m not in flow state and not on the right path. It is a moment to reassess.